On November 11th Tammy Wong attended a brand new evangelical church, Hillsong NYC, in Manhattan, one of over 200 evangelical churches in the lower and middle of the island. The co-pastors Carl and Laura Lentz were trained at Hillsong, a charismatic church in Australia famous for its music and worldwide outreach. Co-pastor Joel Houston is the sending church’s frontman for their well-known band Hillsong United. Pastor Lentz recounts, “Since we have been here, we have had a permanent smile on our face. People are so open.”
New York City? A place that puts a permanent smile on a pastor’s face? What is happening here?
In the last two years there has at times been one new evangelical church founded every Sunday in Manhattan. By September 2009 there were 197 evangelical churches in Manhattan Center City, the part of the city below 125th Street on the West Side and 96th Street on the East Side. A majority were founded since 1988, 40% since 2000. The number of congregates in Manhattan Center City has tripled in ten years.
The increased presence of evangelicals in Manhattan is the latest chapter of tremendous growth of evangelicals in other parts of the city. Today, a Weegee photo of New York City would more likely be a picture of an ex-con with a Bible in his hand than of a murder corpse. As our images of the city include spiritual visions, how New York is viewed by the world will change.
New York City is one of those rare cities that occupies a place in minds around the world regardless of class, race, nationality or religion. Even if some say that they hate the city and never want to come, they are charting their sense of homebody identity in location to the city. This place is the cusp of modernity, the street of dreams and the capitol of the world. A change in our vision of New York City will change our mental geography. A fundamental change in the role of faith in New York City will affect the mindspace of the world as it will that of New Yorkers.
The spiritual journey of New York City can be seen in how evangelical church planting in Manhattan has grown because of a series of demographic, political and personal catastrophes.
Here, we define catastrophe as anything that significantly unsettles the social and cultural customary way of life of a people. Oscar Handlin called immigration “an uprooting” of the immigrants. Migrants from other parts of the US often say that the city presents an unsettling new way of life. The World Trade Center bombings were a political catastrophe that unsettled many people and brought up to 8% real growth in attendance at evangelical churches in Manhattan. Finally, once the evangelical churches were growing in Manhattan Center City and had attuned themselves to local culture, they were seen as hospitable religious alternatives by non-evangelical residents coping with life’s problems.
Tammy herself wonders, how did this happen? She relived in her memory her first days in the city as an eager stranger stepping into a secularist Sodom and Gomorrah.
In the early morning hours of Fall 1975 Tammy (a pseudonym) stood outside Woodbridge Hall, a residence at Columbia University. She observed thieves checking out the locks of every car, including those right in front of her. They seemed to move around with impunity. By the following year crime reached its highest recorded rate in the city’s history. Son of Sam started terrorizing the city with serial killings that included one Columbia student. Every day reporters tallied the breakdown of the city in glaring headlines.
Writer Pete Hamill called New York City “the ruined and broken city.” In his Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning Jonathan Mahler said that at the time the right term for “the raw reality” of New York City’s predicament was “spiritual crisis.” The next morning Tammy attended her first class in a room at Columbia with a partially collapsed ceiling.
Seeking solace on Sunday morning from a crumbling, almost bankrupt, violent city, she found that as an evangelical she didn’t have many church options. Those that were available were crippled in some way.
On the corner of 114th Street and Broadway she found Broadway Presbyterian Church, which was still recovering from its padlocking after the liberal Protestants in the Presbytery had run roughshod over the congregation’s wishes and had fired the evangelical pastor in 1962. The church had reopened, and in 1968, Roger Hull, the son of a famous evangelical businessman in New York City, became pastor. However, Hull was torn about what he himself believed and left in 1977. The associate pastor was the daughter of another famous evangelical, a theologian who had helped to found Westminster Theological Seminary after Princeton had thrown them out on the street during the 1929 depression. However, she narrowly focused her efforts in deference to the senior pastor and was also on the left of evangelical theology. Broadway Presbyterian Church attracted a small core of evangelicals, no more than 25-30 and another 50 congregants of various persuasions.
Later, a charismatic fellowship, One Flock, started meeting in Broadway’s basement. Its music and friendly atmosphere attracted about a 100 people. But Tammy found its teaching was not intellectually challenging. The preachers were all laymen without any training. The tiny, almost invisible New Testament Missionary Fellowship also drew a few people to its Sunday services at an apartment across from the main gate to Columbia and later at a Yonkers site because of the outreach of former Timesman John McCandlish Phillips.
Central Baptist Church was not evangelical at that time, and First Baptist limped along with a small congregation and a series of interim and visiting pastors, when it was open.
Calvary Baptist on 57th Street was a legend among the older generation of evangelicals. The style of its pastor until 1973, Stephen Olford, lived on at the church. He was famous for his Victorian-style grandiloquence which didn’t appeal to young Tammy nor her friends. The pulpit was also seen as a preaching station, meaning that every Sunday was a sermon urging people onto faith. There was not too much for the already “saved” nor enough attention to modern issues and culture.
Moving around, but last located at 57th Street, Isaiah 53 Fellowship was a very small but lively concentration of Messianic Jews and their sympathizers. It followed the Plymouth Brethren pattern of lay leaders and preachers. It remained small as did another Messianic Jewish congregation that was founded somewhat later.
Further down the island, The Manhattan Church of the Nazarene was freshly ensconced at The Lamb’s Club off Times Square. The pastor Paul Moore brought a spirited, freestyle reminiscent of the Hippies to a congregation of about 100 people. Moore’s breaking-the-boundaries style irritated some leaders in his denomination which dispatched him to California for some “seasoning” in a more traditional church in 1980.
Glad Tidings Tabernacle, the church that started Pentecostalism in New York in 1907, was still open in the Penn Station area—mainly to drunks and homeless who needed a warm place to catch a snooze. The reputation about its rhetoric was pretty hot too, hellfire and damnation. Few people went to the church or some other similar churches in the Times Square area. Its counterpart in the East Village was a Slavic church that was trying to change over to English with a few pensioners and Bible school students in the pews supporting the effort.
Coming back uptown on the East Side, there were a mix of traditional, sometimes evangelical leaning churches like Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, the largest Presbyterian church in NYC, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and St. Thomas Episcopal. However, they were a mixed bag of theologies. Fifth Avenue’s Rev. Dr. Bryant Kirkland was often described as having an “evangelical warmth” but seldom was described as an evangelical.
First Christian Missionary Alliance Church was the only lively Eastside church that had a mainstream evangelical theology. Eugene McGee was reviving the church with outreach to kids in East Harlem, Jews and evangelicals who were searching for a home. It had about 250 people at its peak, but many younger people came and went and came again. Pastor McGee had a great heart, but his preaching was filled with simple pieties. He was an admirer of A.W. Tozer’s mystical declaration that a Christian needed to sacrifice his mind.
In all there were only ten or so churches that a mainstream evangelical going to Columbia could pick from. Over the years, a few others came and went. Today’s evangelical mega-church Redeemer Presbyterian Church was preceded by a poorly funded, led and strategized Manhattan Presbyterian Church. It never found much root in Manhattan.
There were a number of other non-English language or storefront churches in the West Side, the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Tammy didn’t really know much about those churches, and the extent that she did, she wasn’t interested because of linguistic, racial or class differences in their worship style and culture.
If you have different memories of the 1975 evangelical churches, please comment!
Next Friday, December 3rd--Part 2: The Making of the Postsecular City. 20th Century decline of evangelicals in NYC